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PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - Twenty five years ago she could not have joined the all-male club but now local businesswoman Joan Carter is the first female president of Philadelphia's venerable Union League.
The move represents a turning point for the conservative club founded 148 years ago to promote the union cause in the Civil War, but also marks the continuation of a national trend of more women heading institutions previously dominated by men.
"There are an increasing number of women in professional positions and a growing number of clubs have women on their boards now," said Susanne Wegrzyn, president of the National Club Association, a trade group.
Six percent of city clubs nationally are now headed by women, and eight percent of their board members are female, according to the association's data.
At Philadelphia's Union League, about 500 of its 3,200 members are women, up from just five out of some 2,000 when Carter, who took over the presidency on Tuesday, signed up 24 years ago.
"We were something of an oddity," she said in an interview. "The Union League was part of the business culture, and there were not a lot of women in executive positions then."
Carter, 67, is co-founder and president of UM Holdings Ltd., a private equity investment firm active in healthcare and pharmaceutical businesses. She is a former board chair of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia.
While her gender marks a new chapter for the League -- where members pay $6,500 to join and $345 a month in fees-- she has no plans to depart from its original mission, to promote a patriotic spirit at a time when the country was being torn apart by the Civil War.
"It was founded on patriotism and if you don't share that you are probably not comfortable here," she said of the club whose motto is "Love of Country Leads."
During her year-long presidency Carter plans to build on existing changes that have seen the club, like those in other cities, move from a male-only business-lunch establishment to a more family-friendly place with sports and fitness facilities that are open beyond business hours.
She will also preside over the opening next spring of a center housing the League's collection of Civil War documents but will maintain traditional activities such as a speaker's program that has included Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas and former President George W. Bush.
She expects the number of women members to reach 40 percent of the total membership.
"Over time, we will be a 60-40 organization," she said.
Reporting by Jon Hurdle, editing by Patricia Reaney